Also read this post on Asia Society Northern California’s blog.
The Western media wake trailing the Wenzhou train crash (7.23.11) has ranged from speculative and well-founded to insensitive and under-evidenced and in most scenarios tinged with latent political musings. Perhaps more interesting to the China Watcher than the Western media’s critical platitudes is what the New York Times has rightfully deemed the “microblogging revolution” – a change in media borne by your average citizen’s often un-cited opinion, though potentially the most reliable medium for victims and witnesses to an event. Without a doubt, popular microblogs are the places for onlookers to feel out the public’s opinions on any given issue.
The incident was first and foremost an unlikely and unfortunate tragedy (despite a handful of Western media claims that this incident was an obvious by-product of authoritarian government shortcomings). A succinct list of the known facts, derived from China Dialogue, is as follows:
1. On June 23 at around 8:31 PM, two trains collided; 6 boxcars were thrown off the rails. Three of those cars fell to the grown below; one stood vertically propped against it.
2. The exact cause of the event has yet to be fully investigated. Initial stages of investigation have revealed that the emergency signal of the other train should have turned red to signify a stop; however, it instead remained green.
3. As of July 29, 40 people had died, 209 were hurt, and 11 people remain in critical condition.
4. Wenzhou’s weather observatory announced the weather report ahead of time, including warning of lightning and flash floods.
5. Originally, Shanghai train station announced that a lightning strike to the tracks had caused the high-speed rail to stop. However, in a later national public announcement revealed that the tracks had not been influenced by lightning or rain, and that operation had been as usual.
6. According to a separate reliable source (unnamed), the train lost power when the electricity supplier (for whatever reason) failed to operate. Because the electricity supplier was out, there was no way to communicate the failure to the oncoming train. It is thus still unclear who to hold most responsible for the mechanics of the accident.
Beyond the still-drying facts, there is a lot of banter. An outpouring of warmth and concern for the victims coupled with outrage toward the railways ministry manifested itself in over 120 million blog posts immediately after the event. After two weeks of personally following the events, browsing Weibo (Chinese blog domain) and China-watch sites, something began to appear more clearly than the alleged “obvious” flaws in an authoritarian system: this accident, while being an accident, is one of this generation’s defining events.
Somewhere between Yang Feng and Cui Jian, it really hit me.
Yang Feng had been a train passenger and lost his mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and pregnant wife to the crash. Dressed in traditional mourning attire, he stormed into the Railway Ministry Office, flanked by 200 relatives and friends as well as TV cameras.
Netizens have also circulated a spoof of Cui Jian’s “Nothing to My Name”, a rewriting of an 80s rock song by the Grandfather of Chinese Rock, who also performed at Tiananmen. I’ve heard Americans and Chinese alike bemoan the indifference of the current young generation, especially in comparison to the earlier Tiananmen protestors and much earlier Red Guard. Then I watch this video, I browse a few blogs, and have to reconsider this statement. This generation is more snide, perhaps – and certainly more abstract in their cyber memes warfare, but they are nonetheless still waging a war of sorts. And while the young revolutionaries under Mao all but worshiped his authority, and the “lost” generation of the 80s attempted to reform it, this generation is marred by deep skepticism and disillusion. And why not?
There is one Weibo post in particular that I felt moved to share with the non-Chinese-speaking world. It was written by a man who declared that the powers that be have “abused Chinese people’s psyches” in their inept treatment of the incident. First, the post is headed by this graphic:
The blogger then shares (roughly translated):
Some netizens say: This is no longer an era in which a few nice words can deceive the people.
Today, I also realized that when “group accidents” and “man-made disaster accidents” happen, the administrative measures of using money, denial, defense, and blacklist to deal with the people, is also no longer effective.
Many years ago, I was in a small town with a group of co-workers, and we got into a taxi together because it was raining. The streets had many dams, but were still treacherous. A young man on a motor bike was making his way down the road nearby. The taxi driver edged the biker toward the side of the road, then suddenly sped up and splashed him with muddy water, laughing darkly. The event seem unprovoked, I supposed that the taxi driver had a grudge against small motorists driving in the street.
After not too long, the incensed and soaking motorist pulled his damaged bike in front of the taxi and demanded he step out and apologize or throw his own clothes in the water. The taxi driver’s reactions was as follows: he stepped out of the car, face alight with arrogance, denied that he had intentionally splashed him, offered up some nice words, and finally offered him 200 RMB. The boy recognized that his actions were merely to challenge one’s dignity, and he became very upset.
The Ministry overseeing the Wenzhou 7.23 Train Accident is in fact this kind of arrogant, manner-less, self-justified taxi driver. And the people [general public] can be considered the boy on the motorcycle.
The feelings this event leaves me with are ones of concern and disappointment, but also hope for the future. I do not think that the 7.23 incident was unpreventable, nor do I think Chinese people as a whole are reticent to air their general feelings about the government. Specific, widely-organized demonstration may not be in the cards, but perhaps something more gradual and significant is under foot: the disillusionment of a generation, and the instigation of human dignity.